A tale of two cities

Bob Bruner is like a lot of young guys in downtown Ferndale. He's in his early 30s, married, and is the proud father of a wonderful little daughter named Audrey. He's also a little different from everyone else in the city, however: He runs the place.

Next month, he'll celebrate his third anniversary as the city manager of Ferndale, an older, working-class suburb on Detroit's northern border. Last week, over a couple sandwiches in his favorite downtown eatery, we discussed the two secret ingredients his town and its 21,000 people need: jobs and money.

"It gets a little depressing having to keep laying people off," he said. But he has no choice. There are about 164 people who work for the city, and thanks to budget shortfalls, another 20 or so positions may have to be eliminated. Next year, he knows, will be worse.

Currently, Ferndale gets about $1.5 million in discretionary revenue sharing from the state. He expects that may be eliminated in the next state budget, something Speaker of the House Andy Dillon has hinted to me as well.

"How will you cope with that?" I asked Bruner, who previously worked for the cities of Ypsilanti and Oak Park, and was an economic policy intern in the White House. "Probably by laying more people off," he said. 

What else can he do? Cities have to balance their budgets. He's been negotiating deals to share services with some communities and provide services to others for a fee, and that helps, but there are only so many rabbits you can pull out of one derby.

Ferndale has won a reputation as a mecca for metro Detroit's gay population, and there is some truth in that. Two years ago, Ferndale's Craig Covey was apparently the first openly gay man to be elected mayor of a Michigan city.

There are fairly affluent gay couples who have fixed up some of west Ferndale's 1920s-vintage homes, and helped its economy. A dozen or so years ago, there was an immense culture-war battle in Ferndale over whether the city should be an open and welcoming place for different folks — artists, gays, the avant-garde and the trendy. The future won, as anyone can plainly see by driving down Nine Mile west of Woodward and checking out the storefronts.

But, by and large, Ferndale is still a blue-collar, white, working-class town, where the population has shrunk by about a third since the 1960s, when this columnist was growing up there. And many Ferndale residents have lost jobs in recent years, thanks to the meltdown of the entire region's automotive-based economy.

That's made providing city services a lot harder. Over the last decade, city revenues have maybe inched up by 3 percent to 3.5 percent, Bruner estimates. But the cost of providing services has drastically increased. 

For most of us, local government is mostly invisible, Bruner noted. "That's as it should be. That's why we have representative government," he noted. "People shouldn't have to think about where their sewage goes or where leaves go when they are picked up," Bruner said. "They don't have time for that."

Yet what happens when the city can't provide those services anymore? There has been controversy over the years over cuts in the Police Department, which is now down to 48 officers. "Is that enough for a town like this?" I asked the city manager. "That's the wrong question," he said. "The only question is how many can we afford, and that number is 48."

Ferndale may be girding up for tough times, but Pontiac is, well, in the humiliating position of no longer being in charge of its own affairs. Yes, there is a mayor and a city council, they meet and debate and have ideas, but they have no authority to spend a penny.

Last year, the state declared Pontiac was in a financial crisis, thanks to a fast-rising deficit and politicians' inability to make hard choices to balance the books. The governor appointed Fred Leeb as emergency financial manager. That makes him essentially a one-man government, when it comes to money issues. I went to see him last week in his office in Pontiac's cavernous old city hall. His desk was piled high with invoices; he insists on eyeballing every expense.

He has an interesting background; financially, he didn't need the irritation. Leeb, 57, hasn't worked in government before, but has won high marks as a "turnaround specialist" in both the private and public sectors. He has an MBA from the prestigious Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and had successful careers at Ford and Occidental Petroleum before going into business for himself. He took the Pontiac job because he wanted to give something back to the greater community. So far he has had some moderate successes; he's trimmed spending; the deficit is falling.

Leeb also managed to unload Pontiac's signature white elephant — the Silverdome. Though he was criticized for only getting $583,000 for it, the real fault should go to dysfunctional city governments that, for years, frittered away chances to sell it for much more.

I expected him to be a cautious, analytical man. But to my surprise, Leeb didn't want to talk about his accomplishments, but about a bold new idea. "You know, there is only so much you can do with cuts before you have a city where nobody wants to live," he said. What the city needs is jobs, jobs, jobs.

But nobody knows where they are going to come from. What is known is that the city is likely to have less and less money. "The fact is that it is only reasonable to conclude that our main sources of revenue are going to continue to decline," he said.

What that will mean is fewer and poorer services, and lessening quality of life, no matter how well anybody manages the money that is there. The only way to prevent that: More jobs. But the days when anyone could hope that General Motors would swoop in and open a new plant are gone forever.

So here's Leeb's thought: "Consider the Manhattan Project." During World War II, the government caused the atom bomb to be invented by corralling the best minds in physics and bringing them together to form a critical mass of brainpower.

Why not try that concept here? He'd like to see the government bring perhaps a hundred of the nation's top economic experts to Pontiac and give them a 10-year assignment: Find a way to turn this city around. "You would pay them, but these are people who won't be primarily interested in money, but in making a contribution" in changing the world, he said.

He thinks Pontiac would be the perfect laboratory. Detroit is too big. But Pontiac, with 20 square miles and an ethnically diverse population of 65,000, could be perfect.

How much would this cost? He guesses maybe $150 million, about what the government spends every day in Iraq. And just think about what might happen if it worked. You could have a blueprint for something that could revitalize lots of places, perhaps even save industrial America.

That's a fascinating concept. If I were Gary Peters, the congressman from the region, or either of our U.S. senators, I would want to get together with Leeb and jump on this, right now. Even if it failed, it sounds a hell of a lot better than waiting for Pontiac, Ferndale, Detroit and all of Michigan to give up and die.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]
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